(Isaiah 55:1-5; Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21)
In July, there were two stories in the news about swimming emergencies. One emergency occurred on July 9; the other on July 11.
The first one I became aware of was the one that occurred on July 11, in Panama City, FL. Roberta Ursey was vacationing at a beach there with her family. At one point, she realized that she couldn’t see her eight- and eleven-year-old sons out in the water. She finally saw them, screaming and crying far from shore, caught in a riptide. She and her family members rushed to save them. They were overpowered by the current, however, and became stranded in the water, just like the boys. Ultimately, there were nine people being pulled further and further out to sea, at risk of drowning. The police and paramedics arrived, but when they tried to enter the water to swim to those perishing, they, too, were overwhelmed by the waves, and they returned to shore. Beachgoers, police, and paramedics ended up standing on the shore, watching the group in the water struggling, while they waited for a boat to arrive to save them.
A woman, Jessica Simmons, and her husband, however, weren’t willing to stand by and watch the group drown. The husband had the idea to form a human chain to try to save the group. A human chain of about 80 people was formed that reached out to the group that was struggling, and Jessica was the last person in the chain, the one that reached the group. Because one person had an idea and the others present helped him realize that idea, all of the people in the drowining group were saved.
Jessica was interviewed on the radio and said this: “It was remarkable because I couldn't believe that all these people come together to help them. Watching them work together, too - these strangers that don't know each other were working together. One person would say push and all of them would do it in a chant. They were all yelling, push, push, push. And you could hear it. It was echoing. . . . It's hard to explain, but it was so remarkable to see how people jump to somebody's rescue and then just go about like it was nothing.”
A friend posted this story on her Facebook page and I shared it, with the comment, “Alone, we are destined to be carried away by the tide of life; together, we save each other.”
A few days later, I became aware of the July 9 story about an emergency in a body of water. This one occurred in Cocoa, FL, in a retention pond. A disabled man – Jamel Dunn, aged 32 – came to the pond after having an argument with his fiancé. He arrived using a cane to walk, but put the cane down and waded into the water. Eventually, he was in distress and started to drown.
Also at the pond that day were five teenage boys, ages 14 to 16, who watched Jamel wade into the water and who started filming him. As they watched and filmed, Jamel started to struggle and drown. The boys did nothing to help him. According to Yvonne Martinez, the Cocoa Police Department spokesperson, “[Jamel] started to struggle and scream for help and they just laughed. . . . They didn’t call the police. They just laughed the whole time. He was just screaming . . . for someone to help him.” Even after Jamel stopped surfacing, the teens continued joking: “’Oh, he just died,’ one teen was heard saying [in the video], prompting the group to break out in laughter.”
The video ended up on social media and the police were notified. Under FL statutes, however, the teens cannot be prosecuted. Although their actions were morally repugnant, they did not commit a crime. Jamel willingly put himself at risk by walking into the water on his own. Their actions and attitude were horrifying, but not criminal.
Within the space of two days, reports of two water emergencies were made public through news sources and social media. One of the reports presented an image of heaven on Earth: People came together and to save those drowning. The other presented an image of hell on Earth: people did nothing and, even, laughed as a man drowned. Both incidents show that we humans participate with God in creating either heaven on Earth, or we work against God in creating hell on Earth. We are presented with events and our response to those events creates a little piece of heaven on Earth or a little piece of hell on Earth. God has made us that powerful. After all, we are made in His image.
This lesson is the one that the disciples learned when Jesus fed the 5,000 with two fish and five loaves of bread. As the time for the evening meal approached, the disciples started to panic. The people gathered around Jesus would become hungry and cause trouble unless they were sent away to feed themselves. An emergency was pending, and the disciples wanted the people in the crowd to deal with the emergency themselves. Jesus, however, asked the disciples to deal with it, stating, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (Mt 14:16). The disciples were dumbfounded: “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish” (Mt 14:17), they responded. Jesus realized he would have to give the disciples an object lesson: “Bring them here to me” (Mt. 14:18). And, with five loaves and two fish, Jesus fed the crowd – and even had leftovers!
One interpretation of this story is that a miracle occurred: Five loaves of bread and two fish miraculously fed 5,000 people. Another interpretation of this story is that those present were inspired by the generosity of Jesus and his disciples to share the food they had brought to feed themselves. As the five loaves and two fish were passed around, they were supplemented by the food hidden away in pockets and purses. What little food the people had brought with them was shared and all were fed. The generous action of a few inspired the generous action of many. All ate and were filled.
Whichever interpretation you decide to go with, a little piece of heaven on Earth was created at the feeding of the 5,000. Instead of the members of the crowd going their separate ways to satisfy their needs the best they could, they stayed together and satisfied their needs together. The disciples learned an important lesson: When we love others the way God loves us and work together to meet needs, we participate with God in creating heaven on Earth.
Heaven on Earth or hell on Earth: Which do we choose to create? Will we work with God or against Him? It is our choice. May we choose faithfully.
Please join me in a prayer to end this sermon:
One: Five loaves and two fish are never enough until you start giving them away.
All: Dear God, remind me to share whatever is in my basket today. You will do the rest. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, August 6, 2017, the Ninth Sunday After Pentecost.
Image is from http://www.payvand.com/news/10/aug/Vank_Cathedral_-_Heaven-Earth-Hell_fresco.jpg